Advice for Design Graduates Begins With Forgiveness

An open letter to all of the newly graduated design students whom I've taught and had the opportunity to work with: Participating in commencement ceremonies this spring has made me rather nostalgic about my former days as a student. (With the challenges of those years behind me, it’s easy to dwell on all of the good parts, as opposed to recalling the degree of stress and anxiety that was also involved.) And I can identify with the mixture of excitement and apprehension all of you are likely feeling as you figure out your post college or graduate school plans.

This period of transition can be bittersweet for any number of reasons. From a career-path perspective, for example, you might be confronted with the uncomfortable question of whether or not you’re genuinely committed to the kind of work or occupation you’ve just spent four-plus years--and thousands of dollars--moving toward. But even if you are sure, the path ahead will come with more challenges.

I can’t avoid feeling a certain amount of anxiety for you as you prepare to enter the “real world”; at the very least I can envision the kinds of highs and lows you will experience, even as I’m confident that each of you will be just fine. But the truth is that the big transition of finishing school is simply one out of a succession of transitions over a lifetime. So, though I’ve frequently been in a position of giving you feedback or words of assurance, the advice I’m now offering is as much for my benefit as it is for yours:

Be forgiving of yourself. Even after you have experience under your belt, there will be situations you are unprepared for, clients that you don’t know how to work with and projects that stump you. Despite your best efforts, not everything you create will be beautiful or flawlessly executed. The key, however, is learning to accept that you are imperfect and that each new opportunity provides you with a chance to get better and do better.

Avoid complacency. If you ever find yourself thinking, “This is it, I’ve arrived; I’m now the world’s most awesome designer and I know just about everything there is to about good design; I’m in a position to condescend to other designers, etc.” then something is terribly, terribly wrong with you! (Seek help immediately.) Any designer worth his/her salt continually strives to do work that is meaningful and is motivated not by achieving a certain kind of status but by a love for what design can do or the desire to create good work.

Find mentors. As you move through transitions, whether it’s starting a new job or career, or continuing on in a chosen field, you need people to help guide you along the way. Despite what we might be led to believe, most of us don’t get breaks without connections or support from other people. Fostering relationships with design educators and professionals who are invested in you and want to help you succeed, consequently, is crucial. Likewise, you owe it to your mentors to consider how you can support the younger designers who are coming up behind you.

Remember that your ability to think creatively is your biggest asset. Just as there are people in the world who don’t really understand or appreciate what graphic designers do--in some people's minds, we simply “make things look pretty”--there are also people who recognize the need for design and appreciate the significant ways in which design has made an indelible mark in society. From helping clients communicate important stories/narratives and ensuring that public spaces are accessible to brightening someone’s day with art/design that is unexpected or provocative, our creativity is a superpower that we can use as a force for good. Not everyone has the ability to imagine the world beyond existing conventions. In the long run, thinking conceptually and having the intellectual capacity to problem-solve will serve you much better than your flashy software skills alone.

The aforementioned being said, don’t take yourself or your work as a designer too seriously. Do I believe that art and design can be a vehicle for advancing significant change? Yes, absolutely. There is no doubt that we can make contributions as thinkers, writers, problem-solvers and creatively-minded individuals. We must remember, however, that there are limitations to what our training and skills prepare us to do.

There are other people in other professions who are involved in impressive projects, conducting cutting-edge research or simply engaging in activities that bring people together--we can draw inspiration from projects or ideas that, while perhaps being tangentially connected to design, are largely removed from it. (See: Improv Everywhere, Majoria Carter, Chops, TED, etc.)

Moreover, not every design project/solution will change the world. (Thankfully, not every design project/solution has to.) We must feed our creative selves and put our abilities in context by making or doing things for the sheer joy of the process. If we expect everything we touch to transform society, help advance our careers or bring us personal gain in some way, we must reevaluate why we are drawn to creative work in the first place.

Whether you continue on in the field of design or end up doing something completely different, I look forward to seeing what the next year brings for each of you. Peace and blessings.

Anne H. Berry